Horse Portraits

(Excerpted from “Body Language,” which first appeared in

The Southern Review, 42.1 (Winter 2006):175-186.)


“We build the corral as we reinvent the horse.”

—Stephen Dunn


The Don

            The seal brown yearling Corleone (a.k.a. The Don) has the profile of Joe Bonanno and the legs of Maria Tallchief. As I open stall doors to let in his pasture mates he roots his nose under my armpit. Me next, me next. His chestnut nephew Calvin darts in like a clownfish. The Don floats through almost en pointe.

Once inside, he flips the black rubber bucket three or four times until the pellets lie in a swath across the deep depression in the clay flooring. While he seeks grain after grain with his prehensile lips, his right forefoot paws frenetically, as if connected to no one’s brain. When I walk by with a bucket for the half-blind pony Yum Yum, he extends his neck like a heron after a tadpole. Is that for me? Where’s the rest of mine?

One sloppy morning I make my way to the fence under a purple golf umbrella. The others scatter, but not The Don. He turns his neck into a question mark. Then he strides toward me and places his head under the royal tent. It is his due.


            After we sold Finnegan to the girl who’d dreamed of him all her life, my dressage horse Fred became the de facto alpha boy in the gelding pasture. He’d flatten his fuzzy brown ears onto the nape of his neck, snake out his nose and stiffen his jaw, and instantly the yearlings and two-year-olds would scatter from the prime side of the hay feeder.

One December afternoon a rustling erupted in the oaks and sweet gums a hundred yards behind the barn. I caught a glimpse of distant flickering in a place that shouldn’t be burning. That was after Fred’s neck strained toward the vertical and he tried to cross the tips of his ears over his poll. Fire seen through quivering leaves not only leaps about, it defies focus.

“Over here,” we heard a voice shout. Another called, “That’s a big one.” Other voices joined the sounds of snapping twigs and shattering leaves. When the stimuli finally overpowered him, Fred danced sideways on rigid legs until he’d pressed himself into the corner where the post-and-rail fence joins the barn. At the same moment he sucked air through his stretched nostrils like a fat man on his back plunging off a dream cliff. As if connected by invisible wires, his five pasture mates lunged into the corner and copied his stance.

I made my way through the underbrush toward the flames, where our neighbor’s son, back on vacation from LSU, and half a dozen ex-high-school buddies were clearing brush for a paintball battleground. Once the college boy saw that his sullen companions failed to greet me, he asked, around the chaw in his cheek, “We’re not scaring your horses, are we?”

“Oh, they’ll probably survive,” I lied. When I stepped back through the fence the animals had not budged from their lookout. An hour later the frantic pip-pip-pip of paintballs and the yelps of the Sunday soldiers told Fred he wasn’t safe even in his sanctuary. He measured the distance to the pasture through the open gate fifteen yards off. To make his way there he’d have to move toward the popping guns. I could almost see his brain break into sweat. Where’s Finney when we need him? At the instant Fred bolted, the others sprinted behind him, all their synapses connected to his thought.


            On my way out to check the fences in the gelding pasture I find a bleached hip joint. Whenever I uncover bones, I think of her, although they could have come from the limbs of deer or even cattle that the dogs have dragged here to gnaw. Handsome Molly, Thoroughbred, the most responsive horse I ever threw my leg over.

The saddle-less dark horse provided her own cortege as we led her through the blackberry brambles to the upland where we’d chosen to put her down. That was back before we turned our Louisiana swamp into a pincer-shaped pond and cleared off the hill above it. Dazed with the pain of a torsion in her gut, the heavily pregnant mare plodded beside me toward the rise where I hunker now over a few bricks that mark a forgotten homestead.

“Stand back.” Dr. Hewlett flicked his middle finger against the syringe. “Sometimes they leap up in the air before they go down.” But she crumpled silently.

Below me now, at the edge of the pond, her son Fred, her grandson The Don, and her great grandson Calvin nibble fronds in mud up past their fetlocks. I place the bone back among the bricks.



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